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Between Planets by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover art by Bob Eggleton

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This novel was my very first introduction to the works of Robert A. Heinlein. I was in seventh grade, looking for more science fiction in our tiny jr. high library, when I came across the original Scribner's hardcover of this volume. Although I was pretty much oblivious to authorship at the time, I could tell at once by the title and the cover art that this was the sort of novel I was gong to enjoy.

It started with our protagonist, Don Harvey, out riding in the acreage belonging to the New Mexico boarding school where he is studying while his parents are doing research on Mars. Suddenly his phone rings.

To a young person reading in this day and age of ubiquitous cellphones, even for kids in jr. high and grade school, there's nothing remarkable for it. But for me in the closing years of the 70's, it was a clear signal that we were in The Future, with technological marvels.

He dutifully returns to the school, where he receives a message that passage has been reserved for him on a flight to "circum-Terra," clearly a space station in Earth orbit. In the discussion with the headmaster, we learn some important information about Don's background that also provides some interesting background about the future in which this novel is set: Don's father was born on Earth, but his mother was a Venus colonial. He himself was born in space, and his Federation-issued birth certificate left him with either dual nationality or none at all.

With the question of his departure settled, he sets to sorting his possessions, picking those few he will take with him on the journey. And here we see the first bits of Zeerust in the future Heinlein created. Back when I read it in the 70's, the slide rule wasn't all that Zeerusty -- scientific calculators were still just coming into common availability, and were pretty much off my radar anyway.

But the other detail, the vreetha or Martian flute, tells us that this is an old-school pre-Space-Age future, when Mars and Venus were still thought to be habitable worlds with shirtsleeve environments, if somewhat extreme. By the time I was reading it, the Viking landers had pretty much settled the possibility of any ancient Martian race out of the Golden Age of SF.

However, I was still young enough that suspension of disbelief came easily, and a deep longing for an inhabited universe full of other minds that thought as well as a man but not like a man gave me the willing suspension of disbelief to ignore the contradiction of known science. Even when Don arrives in New Chicago and we're treated to glimpses of a history of space exploration that differed from the Apollo lunar landings I knew, the evidence that this was a book written before the Space Age did not bother me enough to make me stop reading.

The security procedures Don has to go through before boarding the suborbital shuttle to New Chicago is another of those things that would not be at all surprising to a modern reader accustomed to TSA manhandling on airplane security lines. However, for a reader at the time it was originally published, it would have been a very clear sign that this was not entirely a bright future, for all that it had an interplanetary frontier of wide-open spaces and readily accessible spaceflight to take you there. Back in the 1950's, that sort of "papers please" scrutiny was something that happened in Those Countries Over There, not in the US. Which upon reflection does not say much good about the current US security state.

Upon arrival in New Chicago, Don encounters yet another bit of evidence that this is yesterday's future: one of the sapient inhabitants of Venus. This character, who's chosen the name of one of Earth's greatest scientists for his human use-name, will prove to be important later, but at the moment he's just one of those little bricolage details of worldbuilding that seem to pass right on by, like the title robotic cab which still requires coin to operate its meter.

And what follows is a mixture of the bright future and the grim. They go to a spectacular private club where they talk about science and xenoarcheology, and particularly the evidence that there was once a vast system-wide empire based upon a planet that once orbited between Mars and Jupiter, but was destroyed in some cataclysmic event. Of course now we know that the mass of all the bodies in the Main Asteroid Belt comes nowhere near that of an Earth-sized planet, and the Asteroids are in fact more of a garbage dump of cosmic leftovers.

And then they are caught amidst a grim web of secret police pursuit and interrogation. Don tries to resist, only to find that these people have far crueler levers to use against him than mere brutality. They are perfectly willing to have his favorite horse from the boarding school shipped out to be tortured until he's ready to talk -- and even if the horse survives the torture, it will still be sent to the stockyards because the cops can't bother with the shipping to return the beast home.

And then the cop turns "friendly" with him in a way that subsequently proves quite sinister. It was a bit of a shakeup for my twelve-year-old self, and changed the way I looked at authority figures -- and not necessarily in a good way.

Don does manage to get the all-important package, but is disappointed to find it contains only a cheap plastic ring. Still, given that there is a life-debt on this thing, he's not going to throw it away in disgust. He puts it on, and other than a brief altercation at the security station to board the shuttle to the station, it pretty much never leaves his finger.

It's interesting to see how Don keeps getting into jams, and keeps landing on his feet. He has problems -- from the takeover of Circum-Terra by Venusian rebels to discovering that he can't redeem his letter of credit on Venus for months to the fall of Venus to Federation forces -- yet all of them are solvable by his own effort. He doesn't have to present his efforts to some gatekeeper who can reject them on a whim and leave him dangling.

It's a nice, simple universe, and in many ways a rather comforting one, much better than having to constantly struggle up a ladder that seems to be greased against one's efforts, desperately trying to please gatekeepers who seem to have nothing better to do than turn up their noses out of purest spite, just for the pleasure of seeing your look of helpless horror as yet again you're denied the solution to your current problem.

It finally ends with a revelation of a great many secrets, including the nature of the ring that Don has been carrying through so many trials and travails. And then a confrontation with Federation forces, although the promised reunion with Don's parents is just suggested, not actually shown on camera. And there are hints that the technologies that have been rediscovered will lead to extraordinary changes in the Solar System, and quite possibly quick and easy travel to the stars.

However, Heinlein never did anything with it. Far from it, he created this entire fictional future, distinct from his Future History of Delos D Harriman and Leslie LeCroix and the future history of Red Planet, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Rolling Stones, yet used all that wonderful worldbuilding for just this one book. Even if he felt that writing about the world those new/old technologies created was beyond his power to extrapolate, he suggested so many fascinating things about that Mars, so unlike the Mars of the Future History or The Red Planet, that I really would've loved to have read a novel or even a short story set there.

I do not know why Heinlein never returned to the imagined world of this novel. There is no evidence for the reasoning behind that choice in Grumbles from the Grave. For all we know, his imagination was so fertile that he could casually create a whole fictional universe full of incredible detail just to write that one novel, and then move on, fully confident in his ability to create another fresh universe at need.

Review posted December 4, 2017

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